Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, so it is said. Well, lucky old goose. Lucky old fat, honking, flapping, formation-flying goose. Or, as the French might declare from beneath a fug of Gitane smoke, ce soir on mange du foie gras. For you, goose, my fine-feathered flocker, are a reminder of a happier time. A time when Christmas meant stuffing my own gullet with bars and bars of delicious creamy chocolate from dawn to dusk.
Because, for me, the Cadbury, Mars or Rowntree Mackintosh selection box was as much a festive tradition of the 1970s and 1980s as Noel up the Post Office Tower, scrawling in a brand new Shiver & Shake Annual or picking through the empty shells of Dad’s marquetry bowl of brazils and walnuts. The selection box of yore was a bulky affair, chock full of everyday tuck shop goodies, yet lent a yuletide magnitude by virtue of the luxury packaging. And it’s in danger of dying out.
Not for the 1970s selection box a simple poly-wrap sleeve. This was a proper, to-be-wrapped-and-dumped-under-the-tree present, make no mistake. The box reverse inevitably featured cut-out-and-make instructions for a jigsaw puzzle, golf game, or “picture dominoes”; complicated cardboard constructions requiring infinite patience, a draughtman’s steady hand and an architect’s eye. While the contents might often represent an indiscriminate sweep along the newsagent’s sweet rack, the cover would glorify them as a choc bar supergroup touring on Santa’s sleigh: Texan, Lion, Kit-Kat – together at last! Often, it has to be said, in my already protesting belly just half an hour after breakfast. Along with the Fruit Polos, Toffos and Jelly Tots. Yum! Okay, I mean yuck.
But selection boxes were intended to make you feel sick. It’s what they were for! For crying out loud, it’s what Christmas Day was for, Top of the Pops party and all. What other celebration would demand butter-basted roast fowl dressed in sausages, gravy, cranberry and bread sauces, and then have the audacity to include sprouts as a dressing? Christmas Day is the one day that everyone in Britain is supposed to eat like an American, yet nowadays our most popular television foodies are cutting back on the carbs, burning up the empty calories and shunning anything remotely indulgent.
Look at Nigella, the so-called queen of the midnight feast, dropping dress sizes faster than she used to trough peanut butter fudge sundaes. Then there are the Hairy Bikers – the Hairy Bikers! – topping the Amazon charts with, of all things, a diet book. And to think they used to be the stock answer to “Who ate all the pies?” At least Heston is still making giant packets of Rolos and Um Bongo over on Channel 4. Mind you, even he’s looking a lot trimmer since he landed that new American ex-model arm candy, eh? Give us a break, Blumenthal, and stop trying to rock the skinny jeans look. You’re not Jack Whitehall.
The Christmases of decades past, more than any other season, were symbolised by crazed Willy Wonka visions of sugar, sweets, snacks and pop: Smarties, Maltesers and Fruit Pastilles spilling out of huge cardboard tubes big enough to shove your arm down (or for your older brother Airmail the latest Smiths flysheet to his New Jersey goth girlfriend in); harlequin-patterned jack-in-the-boxes spewing Cadbury’s Buttons, Sharp’s Liqueurs and Trebor Chocolate Tools into the air; Bridge Mints, Matchmakers, those Elizabeth Shaw efforts; Terry’s Neapolitans; Terry’s Chocolate Orange; Terry’s Chocolate Apple (yes, it existed). But above all else, the selection box.
Yet, as the confectionery giants bow to the bean-counters of their multinational owners, and the new towns of austerity Britain turn to Ye Olde Sweetie Shoppes for a quarter of cola-cubed comfort, the selection box’s future is in danger. Sure, you can still find them, in anaemic, variety-restricted editions, mercilessly target-marketed under “superbrand” names (I’m looking at you, “Mars & Friends”), or at the nervous yummy mummy eager to avoid burdening little Chardonnay or Tyson with a hyperglycaemic fit. Really, can anyone be satisfied with just one toffee Chomp or fun-sized Twix on Christmas morning?
Surprisingly, even Cadbury themselves have admitted defeat with this year’s selection boxes, with one cynically aimed at the nostalgic adult male choco-geek. The “His Favourites” box features an assortment of past glories on its rear, including photos of retro Bournville blockbusters like Ice Breaker, Amazin’ Raisin and Spira. Most heinously of all, they’ve also embraced the interactive era with an online, customisable selection box, which can be ordered via the “gifts direct” web site. So it is that the heady rush of childhood excitement and queasiness is reduced to a few clicks and a PayPal checkout button. Plus there’s still no sign of the Aztec bar.
So the campaign for the return of the selection box proper starts here. This Christmas, as your mum flicks a lacquered fingernail along the Dairy Box assortment (will it be the Hazelnut Log, the Caramont, or the Almond Crispy Cluster first?) and dad grazes idly through the Matchmakers, remember that, if we don’t fight to protect our traditions, they will be steamrollered from memory by a tyranny of oversized Toblerones and “seasonally” coconut-coated Ferrero Rocher. Or maybe they’ll just start making Creme Eggs all year round.
The Great British Tuck Shop, by Steve Berry and Phil Norman, is out now, RRP £12.99 (The Friday Project)